U.S. bishops and Trump administration diverge over budget priorities
In a pre-emptive rhetorical strike before the May 23 release of the Trump administration’s proposed budget, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops detailed the U.S. church’s concerns with the president’s anticipated fiscal priorities, especially as a 10 percent, $54 billion boost to the Pentagon budget appears certain to be included.
“Sharp increases in defense and immigration enforcement spending,” the bishops say, “coupled with simultaneous and severe reductions to non-defense discretionary spending, particularly to many domestic and international programs that assist the most vulnerable, would be profoundly troubling.
“The [budget] reconciliation process,” the bishops say in a letter to both houses of Congress released on May 22, “should not be used to achieve savings through cutting health care, nutrition, income security, or other anti-poverty programs.” The budget’s moral measure will be assessed by “how well it promotes the common good of all,” the bishops write.
The budget’s moral measure will be assessed by “how well it promotes the common good of all,” the bishops write.
On May 23 Catholic Relief Services added its institutional voice to a growing Catholic chorus condemning the administration’s budget proposals. The church’s relief and development agency joined U.S. bishops in calling on Congress to reject what it termed “drastic cuts” to international assistance and to protect the nearly $60 billion in diplomacy and development funding “at a time of both unprecedented humanitarian need and real progress in the fight against extreme poverty.”
“The American people want our government to help hungry people in the midst of drought and conflict,” said Bill O’Keefe, CRS’ vice president for advocacy. “This budget falls far short of their desire that our country contributes to a better, safer world.”
While increasing defense spending and seeking new tax cuts, the president is expected to propose a renewed effort to balance the federal budget within a decade. To get there, he plans sharp reductions to social safety-net programs like food stamps and Medicaid and deep cuts to the State and Education departments and to Environmental Protection Agency budgets, among others. According to critics, the deficit reduction plan includes overly optimistic estimates of economic growth and tax revenues to reach a balanced budget.
According to the A.P., both Republicans and Democrats are lining up to oppose reductions to domestic agencies and foreign aid. Many legislators are already recoiling from a $1.7 trillion cut over the coming decade from federal entitlement programs. A 10-year, $193 billion reduction in food stamps, for example, promises to drive millions of people off the program.
The top Senate Democrat, Charles Schumer of New York, says the only good news about the budget is that it is likely to be roundly rejected by senators in both parties.
In their statement, the U.S. bishops note the U.S.C.C.B.’s long support for “the goal of reducing future unsustainable deficits that would harm all citizens, especially those who are poor.” But they argue that this goal should be achieved “through a comprehensive approach that requires shared sacrifice, including raising adequate revenues, eliminating unnecessary military and other spending, and addressing fairly the long-term costs of health insurance and retirement programs.”
They add, “A just framework for sound fiscal policy cannot rely almost exclusively on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor and vulnerable persons.”
The letter was signed by Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, chair of the Committee on Pro-Life Activities; Bishop Frank J. Dewane of Venice, Fla., chair of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development; Bishop Oscar Cantú of Las Cruces, N.M., chair of the Committee on International Justice and Peace; Bishop George V. Murry, S.J., of Youngstown, Ohio, chair of the Committee on Catholic Education; Bishop Christopher J. Coyne, of Burlington, Vt., chair of the Committee on Communications; and Bishop Joe S. Vásquez of Austin, Texas, chair of the Committee on Migration.
The U.S. bishops also expressed concern not only with the nation’s outsized spending on defense but the impact that spending has had on geopolitical policy, especially as the budget proposes defense spending hikes directly offset by cuts to the U.S. State Department’s diplomatic and foreign aid budget.
“Accounting for about one-third of worldwide military expenditures, U.S. defense spending far exceeds that of any other nation,” the bishops point out, adding that military force should “only be employed in a just cause as a last resort within strict moral limits of proportionality, discrimination and probability of success.” They urge instead that the administration “elevate diplomacy and international development as primary tools for promoting peace, regional stability and human rights, not adopt deep cuts to these budgets.”
The U.S.C.C.B. has frequently urged robust diplomatic efforts to end longstanding conflicts around the world, especially in Syria and Iraq. “It is hard to reconcile the need for diplomacy and political solutions with significant cuts to the State Department budget,” they write.
The anticipated budget plan also drew a rebuke from the Rev. David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, who called it “an unprecedented assault on people living in hunger and poverty.” A statement released on May 22 by the anti-hunger advocacy group notes that 20 million people, including 1.4 million children, are currently at risk of starvation in famine or near-famine conditions in Africa and the Middle East.
The budget “reverses most if not all federal efforts being made to address such social ills as homelessness, food insecurity, poverty and health care for the poor.”
Patrick Carolan, executive director of the Franciscan Action Network, also spoke out against the budget on May 23, charging that it “reverses most if not all federal efforts being made to address such social ills as homelessness, food insecurity, poverty and health care for the poor.”
“Our highest calling from God, both as a country and as people of faith, is to care for the poor, marginalized and most vulnerable. Yet the Trump administration continues to make clear that [it does] not hold this as a core value," Mr. Carolan said.
C.R.S. notes that with 65 million forcibly displaced people in the world—including more than 20 million refugees—and famine-like conditions in four countries, the proposed elimination of U.S. food aid would result in lives lost.
“People around the world look up to America because of our freedoms, our democracy, and our compassion,” Mr. O’Keefe said. “The generosity of the American people and the protection of human rights have undergirded America’s moral leadership for decades. That is what makes America great.”
The C.R.S. statement included the testimony of Mohamed Dahir, the service’s country manager for Somalia. “The people who say aid does not work should come stand in my shoes here in Somalia,” he said. “They should talk to a woman who walked with her children for days and days, trying to escape drought, only to lose some of those children along the way.
“In previous droughts, people like her found water in the major rivers, but this drought is so bad even the rivers have dried up,” Mr. Dahir said. “How can we abandon them—good, hardworking, innocent people who have done nothing wrong? Our aid not only brings them life, it brings them another commodity that is very precious in Somalia—hope.”
This article was updated on May 23, 2017 at 4:33 p.m. with additional reactions from U.S. Catholic leaders.